Historical Comprehension: 18th Century Slave Trade Legislation
The slave trade was a source of tension in the United States even before the formation of the federal government. Eighteenth-century legislation, beginning with the Constitution, set a legal precedent for the debate that would rage for the next seventy-five years. When the Constitution was ratified in 1787, it included two compromises on the slavery issue. First, only three-fifths of the slaves in a state were counted for taxation and representation purposes. Second, Congress was prohibited from ending the importation of slaves for twenty years.
“Disunion and Slavery,” a collection of letters from Republican Henry Raymond to Alabama Congressman W.L. Yancey, includes a November 23, 1860 letter that quotes the Congressional record in its description of how northern states called for immediate power to prohibit the slave trade but “yielded their consent to its continuance for twenty years, only to threats of secession on the part of South Carolina and Georgia.”
The 1824 pamphlet, “A View of the Present State of the African Slave Trade,” chronicles the laws introduced to curb the slave trade (page 5). This history includes a brief discussion of such legislation as the 1794 prohibition of U.S. residents from transporting slaves to foreign countries and the 1800 law preventing residents from working on or owning slave trade vessels.
- Why did Congress establish laws that prohibited activities related to the slave trade?
- How do you think these laws affected the ability to carry out the slave trade?
- Were such laws in violation of the compromise established in the Constitution? Were these laws in violation of the spirit of that compromise? If so, was that unethical?
- How might the importation of slaves have affected the population count and the subsequent representation of the states in Congress?
- What was the rationale for counting only three-fifths of the slaves? Who benefitted from this stipulation?
- Why do you think that South Carolina and Georgia threatened to secede if Congress possessed the power to immediately prohibit the slave trade?
- Do you think that the debate over the slave trade was more about states’ rights or about the economic benefits of slavery? Why?
- How did the legislation of the eighteenth century foreshadow congressional decisions of the nineteenth century?